THE FRENCH CONNECTION
Upon their return to Quebec after armistice, soldiers of the Royal 22e Regiment were fêted as heroes — only months after Quebec City was overrun by anti-conscription riots. But as René Bruemmer reports, all that recognition came too late for some, includi
Tomorrow the world will mark the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. For the Van Doos, Canada’s only French-speaking infantry battalion in the First World War, that road to peace was about more than defeating the German army. They were fighting for the reputation of all of French Canada. Many would die to secure it, René Bruemmer reports.
For someone destined to become one of Canada’s most valiant war heroes, Jean Brillant’s early life and military career were relatively unassuming.
Like the province in which he was born, Brillant would come to distinguish himself through his courage and sense of duty during the First World War. His actions as a member of Canada’s storied French-speaking Royal 22e Regiment would help to speed the armistice signed 100 years ago Sunday, bringing to an end a global conflagration that killed close to 20 million people.
Son of a railway worker, Brillant was raised in Rimouski, 300 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, on the verdant southern shore of the St. Lawrence River.
A telegraph operator and volunteer with his local branch of the Canadian militia, he was eager to join when the First World War broke out. Stationed in northeastern France as a lieutenant with Canada’s French-speaking 22nd Infantry Battalion (which soon took on the unofficial title “the Van Doos,” after the English-accented approximation of their name), his early letters betrayed tiredness with biding his time in cold, muddy trenches and doing little on a military front he described as “frustratingly quiet.”
Eloquent and thoughtful, Brillant displayed a keen eye for the social disparities in Europe, the horrors of war, and a touching concern for his parents.
“Rest assured that my affection for you only increases with our separation,” he wrote to them in the fall of 1916, at the age of 26. “I implore you not to have any undue worries. I am in no immediate danger.”
Conditions would change drastically in 1918, when Brillant and the Van Doos were called to the Battle of Amiens, a turning point in the war that relied heavily on Canadian and Australian forces. Brillant and the other corps would rout the Germans and win back nearly 20 kilometres of land over the first two days. The soldiers’ actions at Amiens, as well as other battles like Vimy Ridge and Hill 70, earned Canada and the Van Doos a place of distinction and paved the way for Armistice Day.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the morning on Nov. 11, 1918, when the Allied forces signed an armistice with Germany in Compiègne, France, to end fighting on the Western Front. The signing took place at 11 a.m. — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — commemorated every year on Remembrance Day.
The armistice came too late for Brillant, killed three months earlier while rushing a German machine gun outpost for the third time in two days, and for close to 61,000 Canadians killed in the war. More than 20 per cent of Canada’s 22nd Infantry Battalion died in battle.
But Brillant’s valour, alongside that of the Van Doos regiment and the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a whole, would do much to solidify the sense of identity of the fledgling nation of Canada, and dispel the narrative that French-Canadians were cowards who were shirking their military duties.
“There was a revulsion against German atrocity stories in Quebec as much as anywhere else,” said University of Ottawa history professor Serge Durflinger, who specializes in French Canada’s participation in both world wars. His French-Canadian grandfather served in the First World War. “The idea of obligatory service, that’s a whole other question. A lot of people misidentify or conflate these things — that Quebec was antiwar. Not true.”
For men like Brillant and for the Van Doos infantry battalion, the war was not just about stanching the onslaught of the German army. They were fighting for the reputation of all of French Canada. Many would die to secure it.
A crucial deterrent to French-Canadians enlisting was the lack of a dedicated French unit within Canada’s Expeditionary Force. While there were more than a dozen French-speaking regiments in Quebec at the outset of the war and many more formed during, their members would be split up once they went overseas, placed in English-speaking battalions decimated by casualties. French-Canadians would have trouble following orders, face limited opportunities for advancement, and in the case of death, not be cared for by a Roman Catholic chaplain.
“It was bad enough getting killed because you can’t understand orders, but you sure didn’t want to die and have the last rites read by a Protestant minister,” said one museum tour operator, quoted in Legion magazine.
The Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, a staunch Protestant, distrusted French-Canadians and resisted creating a French unit. It was only under political pressure directed at Prime Minister Robert Borden, and a $50,000 donation ($1.2 million in today’s dollars) from a private French-Canadian doctor, that the Royal 22e Regiment was formed in October 2014.
Other factors dissuaded French-Canadians from enlisting. Few held an affinity for the British Empire, and ties with mother country France had been all but severed for decades. Religious education taught them France had abandoned French-Canadians after 1760, and was now a secular and anti-clerical republic.
In the early 1900s, Quebec was still a rural population, where able-bodied fathers and older sons were needed on the farms to feed their large families. Farmers and rural populations across Canada were against mandatory enlistment. Married men were statistically the least likely to volunteer, and Quebec had the largest percentage of married men in all of Canada. Those most likely to volunteer were recent immigrants from Britain — two-thirds of Canadians who signed up for the first contingent were citizens who had been born in the British Isles.
The main source of French-Canadians’ antipathy was their sense that the federal government was abandoningthem.In1912,Ontario adopted Regulation 17, eliminating French schooling beyond Grade 2 for Franco-Ontarians. For many French Canadians who regarded Confederation as a pact between the country’s two founding language groups, the law was a betrayal, and a sign the federal intention was to assimilate the French-speaking population as opposed to protecting them.
When Prime Minister Borden realized volunteer recruits would not be enough to fulfil his promise to furnish a steady supply of troops, he enacted conscription in August 1917, after earlier promising he never would. All male subjects between 18 and 45 were subject to military service. Exemptions initially granted for farmers were later revoked.
It was seen by many in English Canada as a way to get Quebec “shirkers” enlisted, even though statistically, “if British immigrants are not counted, the respective contributions of French- and English-Canadians were more proportional than raw data would suggest,” historian Durflinger wrote. “Conscription was considered the result of the English-language majority imposing its views over a French-language minority on an issue of life and death. … Canadian national unity had never seemed so fragile.”
Protesters took to the streets of Montreal. Angry crowds smashed the windows of pro-conscription newspaper the Gazette. The summer home of the publisher of the Montreal Daily Star was dynamited. (He was not harmed.) In Quebec City, federal troops fired on a threatening anti-conscription crowd on April 1, 1918, killing four.
For many francophones, the Easter Riots and conscription crisis would become the defining event of the First World War, when the seeds of Quebec identity and nationalism were sowed, nurtured by the pride of having resisted what they saw as an unjust law.
Despite this resistance, Durflinger notes, several battalions were formed in Quebec to fight overseas.
“Many French-Canadians wanted to enlist, but didn’t have the language skills, or felt they would be at a disadvantage,” he said. “There was popular support to enlist, if you could do it under a French-speaking officer, in a French battalion.”
There was popular support to enlist, if you could do it under a Frenchspeaking officer, in a French battalion.
A memorial in High Littleton, United Kingdom, commemorates the centenary of the First World War. The armistice was signed at Compiègne, France, on Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The Royal 22e Regiment at Courcelette, France, on Sept. 15, 1916. “This is our first significant attack,” the regiment’s Lt.-Col. Thomas-Louis Tremblay wrote in his diary. “It must be a great success for the honour of all French-Canadians we represent in France.
The 22nd battalion at work draining trenches in July 1916. The Van Doos would serve with distinction at the battles of Amiens, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele.
The Van Doos encampment at the Battle of Amiens, a turning point in the war.